The Commonwealth at 60: Who should be its next head?
Written by Sir Ronald Sanders   
Sunday, 03 May 2009

The modern Commonwealth – a voluntary group of 53 nations – celebrated sixty-years of its existence on April 28th. For all but four years, Queen Elizabeth II has been the Head of the Commonwealth. Now, as the Commonwealth looks to the future, it also has to anticipate the need for a new Head.

Sir Ronald Sanders is a business
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The Queen turned 83 years old just seven days before the modern Commonwealth’s 60th anniversary. Her father, George VI, was the British King in 1949 when what was then an eight-nation grouping looked set to break-up over the desire by India to become a Republic. Up to that point Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) had a common Head of State – the British Crown. India, which had become independent in 1947, decided that it wished to become a Republic with its own Head of State. In what was a remarkable demonstration not only of good sense, but also a desire to keep the Commonwealth together, the Indian Government affirmed India’s desire “to continue full membership of the Commonwealth and accepted The King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”.

On that basis, every new member of the Commonwealth since 1949 has accepted the British Crown as Head of the Commonwealth.

Every now and again, a muted debate arises over whether the Sovereign Head of Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a few small countries in the Caribbean and the Pacific should continue to be the Head of the Commonwealth in the event of the death of The Queen.

There is an argument that the Headship of the Commonwealth should be shared amongst the Heads of State of other Commonwealth countries.

It is an argument that should be resisted for good and practical reasons as the modern Commonwealth celebrates its 60th anniversary and looks to the future.

In the first place, the Queen has never sought to use her role as Head of the Commonwealth to promote the interests of any of her realms. She has studiously kept her role as Head of the Commonwealth completely separate from her role as the Sovereign of several countries including Britain. As Head of the Commonwealth, she has given great respect to Heads of State and Government of Commonwealth countries and they have returned it in equal measure. She has been a symbol of Commonwealth unity.

A telling indication of the regard in which The Queen is held is the fact that Kenneth Kaunda, the revered former President of Zambia who was in the forefront of the fight to end the Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe and Apartheid in South Africa, chose to spend his 85th birthday at The Queen’s reception at Buckingham Palace on April 28th marking the 60 anniversary of the modern Commonwealth.

Throughout her Headship of the Commonwealth, there could be no doubt about Queen Elizabeth’s personal commitment to it. She has seen it grow from just eight member countries at the time of her coronation in 1953 to fifty three member countries today, and she has visited all of them.

Apart from the fact that she has attended the opening of every Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference since she became Queen and she unfailingly sends out a Commonwealth Day message every year, Commonwealth High Commissioners take precedence at her Court in London over all other Ambassadors – something that has puzzled and often irked representatives of the US and European Union countries.

She has attended Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings even in the face of advice from the British Government that she should not do so. The most notorious of these occasions being the 1979 Commonwealth Summit in Zambia when opposition to the dictatorial and racist regime of Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) had become intense, except in the British government itself.

As a practical consideration, the British government pays the lion’s share of the costs of the Secretariat of the Commonwealth and is the biggest single contributor to its Fund for Technical Cooperation which largely benefits its smaller member countries such as those in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Over the years, interest in the Commonwealth by successive British governments has waned as Britain strengthened its place in other organizations such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It can be taken that if the British Monarch ceased to be Head of the Commonwealth, British interest in the grouping would decline even more as would its financial contribution.

A recent survey in Britain about the Commonwealth revealed that only 35% of 18 to 34 year olds would regret a British government decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth. So, there should be no belief that Britain either wants or needs to be in the Commonwealth.

While it is true that Commonwealth consensus statements with which Britain agrees, strengthens the hand of British Prime Ministers in wider international negotiations, the British government’s continued active participation in the Commonwealth owes much to the British sovereign’s strong commitment to the organisation.

Recently, Prince Charles, the heir to the British Throne and realms in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and some countries in the Caribbean and the Pacific, has been showing greater interest in the Commonwealth than he did while The Queen was more active.

His presence at the last Heads of Government Summit in Uganda - even while the Queen was there - signaled that he would not be averse to assuming the Headship of the Commonwealth when he becomes King. And, there is no reason to doubt that he would be as keen as his mother to continue enthusiastic championship of the grouping. He has already shown a deep concern about global warming and climate change which are urgent issues facing the younger generation of Commonwealth countries.

Leaving the headship of the Commonwealth with him would help keep alive both the organization and its valuable work.

[Published on Thursday, 30 April, 2009 in Caribbean Net News and on 3 May on Monarchist Alliance]